Sunday, March 15, 2009

Gentrification Sweeps Through East Austin

This is a really good account of gentrification issues in East Austin. This is a local and national story for lots of inner-city communities. -Angela

Gentrification Sweeps Through East Austin
Eduardo Gonzalez
Photo Gallery - Gentrification Sweeps Through Austin

Photo by Andrew Rogers
A sign on East Martin Luther King Jr Blvd is one of many examples of discontent over development throughout East Austin.

Rebecca Turrubiarte moved 23 years ago to Riverview Street, a neighborhood located near the south side of Lady Bird Lake. She remembers the area fondly as a safe and friendly place with mainly Latino and African American families. She bought the property for $13,000.

It was a safe neighborhood," said Turrubiarte, "I used to go bicycling ten miles a day; the kids went to the lake on bicycle and went kittling."

Today it's getting a make-over by developers who muscle in with high-price condos.

One is Urban Space, developers known for their "eco-friendly, 5-star green buildings," according to their website which shows 26 individuals working to transform Austin's downtown and east side.

"We call Riverview a modern luxury road on the east side because of its proximity to the Lady Bird Lake," said William Steakley, an Urban Space realtor. They offer an eco-friendly 1,050 square-feet, 2-bedroom, and 1- bathroom condo at 2008 Riverview Street for $299,000.

A predictable conflict between developers who built using environmentalist goals and residents squared off east of I-35.

According to Steakley, Riverview's proximity to the Lady Bird Lake "is mainly the driver for that [high prices]." Nonetheless, although Longhorn Dam created the Lady Bird Lake in 1960, property values held relatively steady until 2003. Then five years before the construction of these condos, Turrubiarte's property taxes increased. Until 2003 she paid less than $707.88 in property taxes and now she pays $1,056.33.

"We get offers through the mail, mainly from realtors saying: ‘if you are interested in selling [your house] give us a call,'" said Turrubiarte, "They offer $40,000-$50,000, but we know the house is not worth that much."

However, the Travis County Tax Assessor appraises Turrubiarte's property at $59,606.00.

"Gentrification happens all over the world. There are a lot of variables, and it is going to happen," said Steakley, "It is important to maintain the culture of the existent population, but... the financial limitation of the existent population and... what causes gentrification."

Gentrification, a term coined early in the 20th Century, refers to development driven by builders who move into low cost neighborhoods and build units at prices that long-time residents cannot afford, but that assure high profits for developers.

Bo McCarver, vice-president of the Austin Neighborhood Council, questions the ecologist claims of some developers. He said "They may put a solar panel on it and claim (it) is a real ecological house. This is called ‘green-washing.' They are affluent people, they are not evil, but their house is upscale from all the others around them. So all the lots go up by the appraised value and that's why taxes go up." People who cannot pay their property taxes in these areas see themselves forced to move to a cheaper location. For many long-time residents of East Austin this displacement forces them miles away.

This rising tax pattern doesn't just happen near the lake. Manuel del Rio Morales, who works as a gardener and owns a property on Meador Street, north of east Austin, faces a similar problem. Over the past five years, Morales' property taxes increased from $107.01 to $1,145.34

"I receive letters and phone calls all the time from companies who want to buy my property," Morales said, "Last time they offered me $29,000 for it but I don't want to sell it."

Travis County appraises Morales' land at $52,570.

A lack of information of possible options for senior citizens may contribute to their despair. For example, Texas offers an adjustable property tax cap to help prevent those 65 and older from losing homes because of tax increases.

Reverse mortgages, an option which allows senior homeowners to use equity as a cash resource might also be explored.

Susana Almanza is co-director of People Organized in Defense of Earth and her Resources (PODER), a community-based non-profit organization that advocates for affordable housing. She said that for people who do sell their houses "$30,000 dollars seem like a million dollars, so when they sold [their houses]... [They] thought they could buy another house. Then they realized there were no other houses they could buy with that amount of money so they get split from where they used to live."

Displacement, especially for low-income elderly, causes more problems than simply a change of address. They lose community ties of mutual help knotted by years of trust and friendship. It creates feelings of insecurity. They can no longer go to familiar spots for a meal out or entertainment.

A recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health by the Stanford University School of Medicine, indicated that low-income women who lived in neighborhoods that gentrified around them had a 70% higher risk of death than those who continued to live in their established neighborhoods. The data spanned 17 years, and involved more than 8,000 people and four communities.

This unleashed development also moved into south east Austin. Marta Martinez moved 14 years ago to Pine Place. She bought her property for $50,000. "I receive letters and phone calls from companies that want to buy my house all the time," said Martinez, "This is our home, the place where my kids were raised and I do not want to sell it."

Even though her neighborhood meets occasionally to discuss how to deal with the problems residents face, Martinez says she cannot attend. "Because of my job, I can't go to these meetings."

McCarver, who is retired, goes from six to seven meetings about housing and social issues in East Austin per week. He rarely sees any East Austin residents there. "The people who are there are the developers, who are paid during the day and they can go on their own time," said McCarver "And frequently meetings are held at times when a lot of people can't go."

"Money talks and small businesses don't generate as much money as the big ones," said McCarver, "It might not even be intentional [but] all the pressure is to redevelop to push the low income people out of town."

Neighborhood advocates call for realistic affordable housing. Many complain that definitions of "affordable" entail formulas too algebraic for most people to understand.

An example of the distance between developers and residents became evident at a recent evening meeting. The city of Austin hired A. Nelessen Associates, Inc., a design firm from New Jersey, to create the plan to "shape the future of East Riverside Corridor." They designed a 37-page online survey. Launched by the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department on September 19, 2008, it sought to gather the residents' opinions.

Available in English and Spanish for one month, it addressed no social, educational or health issues. It did not ask if any of the redevelopment plans put residents at risk of losing their homes or if they knew of options to help them keep their home.

Members of the East Austin Neighborhood Council objected to the survey on several grounds. The on-line survey approach assumes easy internet access by all residents, but low-income areas are often caught in the digital divide.

Few of these residents own computers and subscribe to cable Internet. Maintaining a telephone line for the required time to complete the survey is not easy. Nor can one use a computer at the public library for as long as it would take.

Many of the residents of East Austin work long hours of physical labor, others work two jobs so the survey design does not take the reality of the residents into consideration. These problems may help explain why of the 43,000 residents, only 800 responded.

Another reason might be that no section of the survey addresses the aspects of "gentrification,"which is of most concern to long-time, low-income residents.

Said Morales when she heard the survey's length: "37 pages? I have two jobs and no computer. I don't have time to go to a (public) computer to fill all that out."

Nevertheless, the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department organized a public meeting at Baty Elementary on November 18 to announce the results. Anton Nelessen, a Harvard graduate and director of the firm, discussed the responses for almost three-hours. But not all attendees were happy.

Brady Brantford, a property owner on East Riverside, tried to ask questions about the economic impact three times during the presentation but Nelessen refused to let her speak. "Frustrating," was how Brantford described the meeting.

The promised question-and-answer period did not materialize. Instead the meeting ended abruptly.

"I didn't feel comfortable, it's a great idea, but they didn't answer my question about how much is this going to cost," Brantford said.

This was the first public meeting that Ramiro Martinez, an East Riverside resident for 11 years, attended. "I felt confused at the meeting, and I just hope they [the developers] are telling the truth." Like others, they worry about being pushed out.

Photo by Andrew Rogers
The property tax of Manuel del Rio Morales and his family increased over 1000% over the past 5 years.
"Gentrification is good," said Nelessen, "you need a balanced community of 20% low and moderate [income] against 80% other. If that tips, studies say communities go to hell. Whoever is here who is poor, let's say 100 people; we should bring 500 more [high income] people to balance them. But we need those [poor] people, (because) who is going to do your dishes, or cut your grass or water your plants?"

After doing yard work for more than 30 years, Morales simply wants to enjoy the rest of his life there. "I don't know who is moving to my neighborhood," said Morales, "but I just want to live in peace with my family and have good neighbors."

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